There were twenty-two days to go before Christmas, but Lenny was doing his Christmas shopping early this year. Secure in the knowledge that no one knew he was there, and standing so still and quiet that he hardly could hear himself breathe, he watched from the confessional as Monsignor Ferris went about the rounds of securing the church for the night. With a contemptuous smile, Lenny waited impatiently as the side doors were checked and the lights in the sanctuary extinguished. He shrank back when he saw the monsignor turn to walk down the side aisle, which meant that he would pass directly by the confessional. He cursed silently when a floorboard in the enclosure squeaked. Through a slit in the curtain he could see the clergyman stop and tilt his head, as if listening for another sound.
But then, as if satisfied, Monsignor Ferris resumed his journey to the back of the church. A moment later, the light in the vestibule was extinguished, and a door opened and closed. Lenny allowed himself an audible sigh -- he was alone in St. Clement's church on West 103rd Street in Manhattan.
Sondra stood in the doorway of a townhouse across the street from the church. The building was under repair, and the temporary scaffolding around the street level shielded her from the view of passersby. She wanted to be sure that Monsignor had left the church and was in the rectory before she left the baby. She had been attending services at St. Clement's for the last couple of days and had become familiar with his routine. She also knew that during Advent he would now be conducting a seven o'clock recitation of the rosary service.
Weak from the strain and fatigue of the birth only hours earlier, her breasts swelling with the fluid that preceded her milk, she leaned against the door frame for support. A faint whimper from beneath her partially buttoned coat made her arms move in the rocking motion instinctive to mothers.
On a plain sheet of paper that she would leave with the baby she had written everything she could safely reveal: "Please give my little girl to a good and loving family to raise. Her father is of Italian descent; my grandparents were born in Ireland. Neither family has any hereditary diseases that I am aware of, so she should be healthy. I love her, but I cannot take care of her. If she asks about me someday, show her this note, please. Tell her that the happiest hours of my life will always be the ones when I held her in my arms after she was born. For those moments it was just the two of us, alone in the world."
Sondra felt her throat close as she spotted the tall, slightly stooped figure of the monsignor emerge from the church and walk directly to the adjacent rectory. It was time.
She had bought baby clothes and supplies, including a couple of shirts, a long nightgown, booties and a hooded jacket, bottles of formula and disposable diapers. She had wrapped the baby papoose-style, in two receiving blankets and a heavy woolen robe, but because the night was so cold, at the last minute she had brought along a brown paper shopping bag. She had read somewhere that paper was a good insulator against the cold. Not that the baby would be out in the frigid air for long, of course -- just until Sondra could get to a phone and call the rectory.
She unbuttoned her coat slowly, shifting the baby only as needed, remembering to be especially careful of her head. The faint glow from the streetlight made it possible for her to see her infant's face clearly. "I love you," Sondra whispered fiercely. "And I will always love you." The baby stared up at her, her eyes fully open for the first time. Brown eyes stared into blue eyes, long dark-blond hair brushed against sprigs of the blond hair curling on the little forehead; tiny lips puckered and turned, seeking Mother's breast.
Sondra pressed the baby's head against her neck; her lips lingered on the soft cheek; her hand caressed the infant's back and legs. Then, in a decisive move, she slipped the tiny figure into the shopping bag, reached for the secondhand stroller folded next to her and tucked the handle under one arm.
She waited until several people had walked past her hiding place, then hurried to the curb and looked up and down the street. A block away traffic was stopped at the red light, but she saw no pedestrians coming in either direction.
A solid wall of parked cars on both sides of the street helped to protect Sondra from any curious eyes as she darted across the street to the rectory. There she ran up the three steps to the narrow stoop and opened the stroller. After engaging the brake, she laid the baby snugly under the stroller's hood and laid the bundle of clothes and bottles at her feet. She knelt for a moment and took one last look at her child. "Good-bye," she whispered. Then she stood and quickly ran down the steps and headed toward Columbus Avenue.
She would make the call to the rectory from a street phone two blocks away.
Lenny prided himself on being in and out of a church in less than three minutes. You never know about silent alarms, he thought, as he opened his backpack and pulled out a flashlight. Keeping the narrow beam pointed toward the floor, he quickly began to make his usual rounds. He went to the poor box first. Donations had been down lately, he'd noticed, but this one yielded a better than usual take, somewhere between thirty and forty dollars.
The offering boxes below the votive candles turned out to be the most satisfactory of any of the last ten churches he had hit. There were seven of them, placed at intervals in front of the statues of the saints. Quickly he smashed the locks and grabbed the cash.
In the last month he'd come to Mass here a couple of times to study the layout; he had observed that the priest consecrated the bread and wine in plain goblets, so he didn't bother to break into the tabernacle, since there'd be nothing special there. He was just as glad to avoid doing that anyway. The couple of years he'd spent in parochial school had had an effect on him, he acknowledged, making him queasy about doing certain things. It definitely got in his way when it came to robbing churches.
On the other hand, he had no qualms about leaving with the prize that had brought him here in the first place, the silver chalice with the star-shaped diamond at the base. It had belonged to Joseph Santori, the priest who founded St. Clement's parish one hundred years ago, and it was the one treasure this historic church contained.
A painting of Santori hung above a mahogany cabinet in a recess to the right of the sanctuary. The cabinet was ornate, its grillwork designed to both protect and display the chalice. After one of the masses he had attended, Lenny had drifted over to read the plaque beneath the cabinet.
At his ordination in Rome, Father, later Bishop, Santori was given this cup by Countess Maria Tomicelli. It had been in her family since the days of early Christianity. At age 45, Joseph Santori was consecrated as a bishop and assigned to the See of Rochester. Upon his retirement at age 75, he returned to St. Clement's, where he spent his remaining years working among the poor and the elderly. Bishop Joseph Santori's reputation for holiness was so widespread that after his death, a petition was signed to ask the Holy See to consider him for beatification, a cause that remains active today.
The diamond definitely would bring a few bucks, Lenny thought as he swung his hatchet. With two hard blows he smashed the hinges of the cabinet. He yanked open the doors and grabbed the chalice. Afraid that he might have triggered a silent alarm, he quickly ran to the side door of the church, unlocked it and pushed it open, anxious now to get out.
As he turned west toward Columbus Avenue, the cold air quickly dried the perspiration that had covered his face and back. Once on the avenue, he knew he could disappear into the crowds of shoppers. But as he passed the rectory, the wall of an approaching police siren shattered the calm.
He could see two couples down the block, headed in the same direction he was going, but he didn't dare to start running to catch up with them. That would be a sure giveaway. Then he spotted the stroller on the rectory steps. In an instant he was carrying it down to the sidewalk. There appeared to be nothing in it but a couple of shopping bags. Shoving his backpack in the foot of the stroller, he walked quickly to catch up with the couples ahead of him. Once he was near them, he strolled sedately just behind.
The police car roared past the group and screeched to a halt in front of the church. At Columbus Avenue, Lenny quickened his steps, no longer worried about detection. On such a chilly night, all pedestrians were hurrying, anxious to reach their destinations. He would just blend in. There was no reason for anyone to pay attention to the average-sized, sharp-faced man in his early thirties, who was wearing a cap and a plain, dark jacket and pushing a cheap, well-worn stroller.
The street phone Sondra had planned to call from was in use. Wildly anxious with impatience and already heartsick about the baby she had abandoned, she tried to decide whether to interrupt the caller, a man wearing the uniform of a security guard. She could explain that it was an emergency.
I can't do that, she thought despairingly. Tomorrow, if there's a story in the newspapers about the baby, he might remember me and talk to the police. Dismayed, she shoved her hands in her pockets, groping for the coins she needed and the paper on which she'd written the phone number of the rectory, unnecessary because she knew it by heart.
It was December 3rd, and already Christmas lights and decorations glittered from the windows of the shops and restaurants along Columbus Avenue. A couple walking hand in hand passed Sondra, their faces radiant as they smiled at each other. The girl appeared to be about eighteen, her own age, Sondra thought, although she felt infinitely older -- and infinitely removed from the air of careless joy this couple displayed.
It was getting colder. Was the baby wrapped warmly enough? she worried. For an instant she shut her eyes. O, God, please make this man get off the phone, she prayed, I need to make this call now.
An instant later she heard the click of the receiver being replaced. Sondra waited until the caller was a few paces away before she grabbed the receiver, dropped in the coins and dialed.
"St. Clement's rectory." The voice was that of an elderly man. It had to be the old priest she had seen at Mass.
"Please, may I speak to Monsignor Ferris, right away."
"I'm Father Dailey. Perhaps I can help you. Monsignor is outside with the police. We have an emergency."
Quietly, Sondra broke the connection. They had found the baby already. She was safe now, and Monsignor Ferris would see that she was placed in a good home.
An hour later Sondra was on the bus to Birmingham, Alabama, where she was a student in the music department of the university, a violin student whose astonishing talent had already marked her for future stardom on the concert stage.
It was not until he was in the apartment of his elderly aunt that Lenny heard the faint mewling of the infant.
Startled, he looked into the stroller. He saw the shopping bag begin to move and quickly tore it open; he stared in shock at the tiny occupant. Unbelieving, he unpinned the note from the blanket, read it and mouthed an expletive.
From the bedroom at the end of the narrow hallway, his aunt called: "Is that you, Lenny?" There was no hint of a welcome in the greeting, spoken with a strong accent that betrayed her Italian roots.
"Yes, Aunt Lilly." There was no way he could simply hide the baby. He had to figure out what to do. What should he tell her?
Lilly Maldonado walked down the hall to the living room. At seventy-four, she both looked and moved like someone ten years younger than her age. Her hair, pulled back in a tight bun, was still generously sprinkled with black strands; her brown eyes were large and lively, and her short, ample body moved in quick, sure steps.
Along with Lenny's mother, her younger sister, she had emigrated to the United States from Italy shortly after World War II. A skilled seamstress, she had married a tailor from her native village in Tuscany and worked side by side with him in their tiny Upper West Side shop until his death five years ago. Now she worked out of her apartment, or went to the homes of her devoted clients, whom she charged far too little for dressmaking and alterations.
But as her customers joked among themselves, in exchange for Lilly's low prices, they were forced to lend considerable sympathetic attention to her endless stories about her troublesome nephew Lenny.
On her knees, a heap of pins beside her, her alert eyes carefully measuring as she chalked hem lengths, Lilly would sigh, then launch into her litany of complaints. "My nephew. He's always driving me crazy. Trouble from the day he was born. When he was in school: Don't ask. Arrested. Went away to a prison for kids twice. Did that straighten him out? No. Never can hold a job. Why not? My sister, his mama, God rest her, always was too easy on him. I love him, of course -- after all, he's my flesh and blood -- but he drives me crazy. How much can I put up with, him coming in at all hours? What's he living on, I ask you?"
But now, after earnest prayer to her beloved St. Francis of Assisi, Lilly Maldonado had made a decision. She had tried everything, and none of it had made a difference. Clearly nothing was going to change Lenny, and so she was going to wash her hands of him once and for all.
The light in the foyer was dim, and she was so intent on delivering her speech that she did not immediately notice the stroller behind him.
Her arms folded, her voice firm, Lilly said, "Lenny, you asked if you could stay a few nights. Well, that was three weeks ago, and I don't want you here anymore. Pack your bags and get out."
Lilly's loud, strident tone startled the already stirring infant, and the faint mewling broke into a wall.
"What?" Lilly exclaimed. Then she saw the stroller. In a quick move, she shoved her nephew aside and looked down into it. Shocked, she snapped, "What have you done now? Where did you get that baby?"
Lenny thought fast. He didn't want to leave this apartment. It was a perfect place to live, and staying with his aunt gave him the aura of respectability. He had read the note from the baby's mother, so he quickly came up with a plan.
"She's mine, Aunt Lilly. A girl I was crazy about is the mother. But she's moving to California and wants to put the baby up for adoption. I don't want to. I want to keep her."
The wall was now a demanding screech. Tiny fists flailed the air.
Lilly opened the bundle at the infant's feet. "The baby's hungry," she announced. "At least your girlfriend sent some formula." She plucked out one of the bottles and thrust it at Lenny. "Here, warm this up."
Her expression changed as she unwrapped the blankets from around the tiny infant, picked her up and cradled her in warm and comforting arms. "Beautiful, bella. How could your mama not want you?" She looked at Lenny. "What do you call her?"
Lenny thought of the star-shaped diamond in the chalice. "Her name is Star, Aunt Lilly."
"Star," Lilly Maldonado murmured as she soothed the sobbing baby. "In Italy we would call her Stellina. That means 'little star.'"
Through narrowed eyes, Lenny watched the bonding between the infant and the aging woman. No one would be looking for the baby, he thought. It wasn't like he had kidnapped it, and anyhow, if anything ever did come up about the kid, he'd have the note to prove she had been abandoned. He knew the word for grandmother in Italian was nonna. As he turned and hurried into the kitchen to warm the bottle, Lenny told himself with satisfaction, "Star, my little girl, I've found me a home -- and you've got yourself a nonna."
Copyright © 1998 by Mary Higgins Clark